tagHumor & SatireLackluster Politics

Lackluster Politics


One of the most unusual stories I covered in my long career as a political journalist was the race for mayor in the small town of Lackluster, Arizona. What first caught my attention was a brief news clip on television profiling one of the candidates, a dog named Harvey. I couldn't help but be curious about the forces in play that placed a candidate of such extreme ethnicity on the ballot.

So, one sun honeyed Friday afternoon in mid-September, being in the area to do legwork on another story, I found myself driving down the narrow twisting highway that leads to Lackluster. This was the first of three visits I made over the course of the campaign.

I had some faint knowledge of this small community that sits in the high desert close to the Nevada border, nestled in the protective embrace of a small range of mountains called the Sierra Lobos. I knew, for instance, that it had come into existence as a silver mining town in the 1860's. Once boasting a population of almost 10,000 it had dwindled to something like 250 adults. I'd heard it was a place of ragtag charm that could touch a visitor with an authentic sense of what the spirit of the wild west must have been like one hundred years ago.

I can now tell you from personal experience that this is true. The habitations, because of a total lack of building ordinances, are a disorderedly hodgepodge of tiny trailers, single wides, manufactured homes, exotic owner built houses, and old miner's shacks. A substantial number of the latter have been abandoned.

The population, due to a variety of factors, is in a constant state of flux but 250 adults isn't a bad estimate; if you include children, dogs, cats, and pot bellied pigs (of which there are two) you arrive at a figure of about 500. If the cattle that roam the streets at night are counted the number swells to something like 800. Add rabbits, the wild Jacks and Cottontails, and rattlesnakes and you have a population rivalling Phoenix.

Materially speaking this is one of the poorest areas in a poor county. About half of the adults are retirees and the rest either work in Rock Gulch 30 miles away or make a meager living catering to the small but steady flow of tourists.

The Sierra Lobos, a yellowish-grey expanse covered with an anemic carpet of greenery and streaked with the yellow scars of mine tailings, fill the sky to the east while to the west is spread the floor of the Joshua valley. Only two streets are paved and even those aren't paved along their entire length. The others are covered with a yellowish gravel that generates thick clouds of dust every time a vehicle passes and, unless faithfully graded, are subject to becoming like a washboard which produces a bone-shaking ride when traversed in older vehicles. At times when the grading has been neglected the condition can be so bad that those attempting to speak are in danger of biting their tongues.

It is, clearly, a town that lives down to its name. But, as the old-timers are fond of saying, "What it lacks in luster it makes up in color."

On that first afternoon, parking on the corner of Main and Arkansas next to an assemblage of weathered household goods and western curios that sprawled beneath a large sign that read, 'Bill's Mart', I crossed Main street and stepped up on the reverberent wooden walkway. To my right an imposing shaggy copper-colored dog lay against the wall, in the shade of the awning of Draybeck's Merchantile. As I reached for the door handle of Lackluster's small Post Office he gave one listless thump of his tail. This, I was informed moments later by Candice Estes, the postmistress, was Harvey, candidate for mayor.

Asked if Harvey was a Democrat or a Republican Candice said, with only a gleam of dry humor, "As far as we can determine he's a member of the Woof party because when questioned all he says is 'woof'. We do know that his party platform is the old boardwalk out front."

Olivia Duren, whom I found behind the counter at Draybeck's Merchantile, gave me a detailed account of the candidate's routine, "From about seven until nine he lies in the sun in front of the Post Office. At nine he edges into the shade under our awning and that's where you'll find him for the rest of the day. Finally, just before sundown, he wanders down Arkansas street to Walter Mason's old travel trailer where he spends the night."

I learned very early in my investigations that this was a town split down the middle. On one side ranged the longtime residents who wanted things to stay as they were and who could be found congregating at The Bended Arm Saloon or at meetings of the Penny Dreadful Revue with which Deadeye Doyle's Dastardly Desperados were affiliated.

On the other side stood the newcomers to town, lean, hungry men and women, full of the fires of reformation, who wanted to build a tourist center, buy a computer for the water board, restructure the volunteer fire department, begin charging for flea market spaces, and create a Chamber of Commerce. These were folks who frequented the Gold Gulch Cafe, performed in Miss Daisy's Variety Show, and filled the ranks of Marshal Maynard's Mean And Ugly Lawmen. These were the men and women who'd decided that Lackluster needed a mayor.

Every Saturday the Penny Dreadful Revue and Miss Daisy's Variety Show would compete for the attention of the tourists with humorous skits and rollicking songs about life in the wild west. And twice on that day Deadeye Doyle's Dastardly Desperados and Marshal Maynard's Mean and Ugly Lawmen would meet on Main street for a spirited display of gunslinging. And it was clear the tourists appreciated, on some visceral level, that there was real animosity between these two groups.

It was G.G. Marquez, The Bended Arm's raconteur in residence, who filled me in on the machinations creating the power vacuum that had sucked Harvey into his current status. G.G. told me that the earnest young men, as the old-timers referred to the newcomers, had first decided that there needed to be a Town Council which they then formed and whose meetings were attended almost exclusively by those of their feather.

For the first six months the long-term residents had observed the proceedings with indulgent amusement. But slowly, as word of the reforms the earnest young men were preparing to install drifted through the small community, there had been a growing sense of alarm. What finally galvanized the elders into action was the notice detailing the election process for selecting Lackluster's new mayor that was posted on the Post Office bulletin board.

Many disgruntled voices had been heard chewing on the news in The Bended Arm Saloon. Especially when it was announced that Don Robert, one of the most earnest of the earnest young men, had been nominated by his compatriots to run for the freshly minted office.

"I'd just as soon have Harvey for mayor," someone had said.

"Why not?" Someone else had asked. And so the idea, like so many that have changed the course of history, was conceived in a chance interplay of words.

"Nominating a dog to be our mayor is an insult to the democratic system. It's just plain wrong." Bill Murphy, 'Bill's Marts' proprietor, had howled at a Town Council meeting. But even the most biased reading of their own by-laws and election rules failed to provide them with the means to oppose the placement of Harvey's name on the ballot.

My initial thought was that the old-time residents would have been better served by a candidate with more get up and go, that they should have fought fire with fire. But that isn't the sort of spirit that reigns here. Nominating a candidate who could be counted on to maintain the status quo was their way of expressing their firm resolve to do things the way they liked doing them.

By the time I'd gathered the foregoing information it was almost nine o'clock in the evening. Someone mentioned that there was a room available at the bed and breakfast establishment above Draybeck's Merchantile so, not wishing to make the long trek back to Phoenix after such a long day, I made the necessary arrangements and was given a small room overlooking Main street.

Before retiring I walked downstairs and out onto the boardwalk to take one last look at the stars which, unlike the view I had at home, filled the sky with an awesome clarity. Then, high in the Sierra Lobos I saw what appeared to be the headlights of three vehicles move slowly across the face of the mountainside and then disappear. "What was that?" I asked Ezekial Crawford, who was sitting in the shadow nearby smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

"Them's those Freedom League fellers," came the reply, dry as the desert wind. Two long-horned steers came around the side of Draybeck's Merchantile and ambled off across the parking lot of The Bended Arm.

The High Desert Freedom League, I knew from various collegues with whom I'd spoken, was a renegade militia unit that was rumored to roam these arid mountains in camoflaged clothing and dust covered four wheel drives. In fact I'd recently read a news release by Armed And Dangerous, the militia watchdog organization which had reportedly infiltrated the group, that called them a 'dangerous bunch of lawless misfits'.

"Have you ever met or seen them?" I asked Ezekial.

"Haven't and don't want to. Heard them suckers is mean as snakes."

I felt a cold shiver slide down my spine. "Well, I'd better be getting to bed," I said to the old man. "Nice talking with you."


I slept fitfully that night, primarily because the mattress was old and lumpy. Finally about five in the morning I sank into a fairly deep sleep. Then, with the abruptness of a stack of dishes being thrown into a sink, all vestiges of peace and quiet were torn from my consciousness by an extended volley of gunfire. With my heart pounding madly I sat up in bed. What could account for such a fusilade of booming shotguns and revolvers? My first thought was that the High Desert Freedom League had decided to knock over the tiny Post Office, located directly beneath me, in order to make off with the rich bounty of social security checks that infused the community with a sizable portion of its financial lifeblood.

Shaking from head to foot, barely able to breath, I cautiously crawled over to the window and slowly poked my head above the sill. I was horrified to see the main street littered with dead and dying cowboys. One incongruity was the fact that, as I stuck my head up further, I saw along the street just below me a group of tourists placidly observing the carnage. Only then did I remember the staged gunfights between Deadeye Doyle's Dastardly Desperados and Marshal Maynard's Mean And Ugly Lawmen. I practically cried with relief to see the mortally wounded ranch hands rise grinning to their feet and wave to the small crowd.

Still shaking I got dressed and found my way to the Gold Gulch Cafe for breakfast. After eating and finishing several cups of strong black coffee to steady my nerves I retreated down the twisting highway leading out of town a little stunned by the strangeness of the world I'd entered.

Three weeks passed before I was able to return for a short visit. The first thing I noticed was that some wag had stapled a small hand-lettered sign above Harvey's favorite resting spot which read, "I will work like a dog for your welfare".

"We should have more politicians who work as hard as Harvey does," was Olivia Duren's comment to me. Later Arthur McNamara was to say, "Well, at least we know what he lies down for."

I learned that the old-timers, in their sessions at the Bended Arm Saloon, had shortened the "earnest young men" to the Ermyn. G.G. Marquez told me an amusing story of how Gladys Squire had chanced to say something about the Ermyn in the presence of one of them.

"There aren't any ermine around here," that severe soul had said.

"Oh yes there are," Gladys retorted. "Lots of them."

"Have you ever seen one?"

"All the time. I saw one today, in fact."

"Do you know what an ermine looks like?"

"Of course."

"Describe one."

"Sneaky. Beady eyes." By this time, G.G. told me, her tablemates were gasping and choking, shuddering as if diseased.

But I found that the denizens of the Gold Gulch Cafe also had a derogatory nickname for those with a subscription to Modern Maturity, calling them old fAARPs.

"He won't meet us for a substantative debate on the issues." I heard Don Robert complain while I was eating lunch, "He relies wholly on sound bites."

"More like sound barks," was Walter Mason's comment when I spoke with him. "And his sound bark is worse than his sound bite."

And, with my own ears, I found Harvey to be as laconic as the proverbial New Englander, making few speeches. Those he did make were short and to the point, often consisting of a single syllable.

Harvey, I learned, was a rare breed of political animal, one who was not driven by any kind of personal ambition. Indeed, Harvey wasn't driven by anything except, occasionally, Walter Mason's ancient pickup when he accompanied the old man to Desert Springs, a small community 20 miles north of Lackluster, to pick up groceries and kerosene with his ears flapping and a toothy grin on his face.

The only other news of interest was that the High Desert Freedom League was suspected of masterminding a local bank robbery.

During my third and final visit after the election had been held I learned that Harvey's campaign had been marked by a couple of near disasters. The first involved the Piscante County Animal Control. Joseph Neil filled me in on the particulars. Joseph's claim to fame were the words to the minor psychedelic hit, "Waiting For the Rain," recorded by Pink Avocado in the late 60's , better known for its 18 minute instrumental break than for its lyrics.

Apparently two animal control vans had pulled to a stop in front of the Post Office and three animal control personnel had jumped out as if making a raid on a crack house. They surrounded Harvey and put a rope around his neck.

"You can't take him, he's one of the candidates for mayor." Candice Estes had said, running out of the Post Office.

"Right," the animal control officer in charge had responded.

"He really is," another voice concurred.

"Lady, all I see is a loose dog without identification or a rabies tag. He's going to the pound. You can inform the owner to pick him up there."

"Why don't you pick up the dad-blamed cows? They cause a whole lot more trouble than Harvey does," Ezekial Crawford had said. He didn't receive a response.

Harvey was dragged into one of the vans and taken away. Later in the afternoon a delegation of Lackluster residents went to the pound to rescue him. Upon their return someone attached a frayed piece of rope to his collar to suggest a recent escape. It became known as 'Harvey's string tie'. Others formed a lookout for Animal Control, calling themselves,"a watchdog group watching for those who watch for dogs".

The second incident created more serious complications. According to G.G. Marquez it all began when a tourist, a woman who was spending a couple of days in the RV park, started walking up and down Main street calling, "Here Flower, come here Flower, you naughty little girl." She told those who questioned her that Flower was a dog who was in a 'delicate condition'. Unable to find Flower along the main drag the woman struck off down Arkansas street wheedling and remonstrating to the lost Flower in turns. When she was no more than a voice crying in the wilderness who should come sauntering down Main street but the bad girl herself.

Harvey, at his post as usual, was quick to discern just what was meant by a 'delicate condition' and with a gleam in his eye and a glow in his heart went snuffling over to investigate. Moments later, to the consternation of those who witnessed the event, he and Flower were coupled. Frances Damler fled into the Gold Gulch cafe and emerged minutes later with a plastic pail full of cold water which she flung over the copulating canines. This had faint effect on Harvey's ardor. Only after the fourth pail had been emptied and Flower's owner had come screaming up Arkansas street did the two dogs finally cease and separate.

This, obviously, gave the opposition an arsenal of ammunition. Bill Murphy insisted that it made Harvey look less than mayoral and would hinder his ability to govern.

"Can we have our mayor screwing females, however willing, on the main street of town whenever his gonads become engorged?" Don Robert had asked with rhetorical zeal. "What will the tourists think?"

"Oh the tourists! The poor tourists!" Joseph Neil had exclaimed.

"Well," Bill Murphy had weighed in, "just what will the tourists think if we have a mayor who humps their females without proper respect for the gravity of his office".

"I don't see what all the fuss is about," Betty Haalsbad remarked to me later, "Dogs will be dogs. At least he isn't a hypocrite. He does it right out in the open where everyone can see."

But these incidents couldn't KO the comeback canine because when all 183 votes had been carefully tabulated it was discovered that Harvey had won by one vote. Don Robert had to suffer the ultimate insult of being beaten by a dog, an exhibitionistic mongrel dog at that. I later overheard a woman say that she'd planned to vote for the Ermyn but had changed her mind because one night Harvey had chased some cattle out of her garden. Which should lay to rest the perception that Harvey didn't have keen political instincts, albeit cloaked by a facade of profound nonchalance.

I kept in touch with G.G. Marquez and learned, in the course of time, how Harvey's tale ended. Ironically, to the great chagrin of the old-timers, the huge influx of tourists wanting to see the dog mayor gave the Ermyn the leverage they needed to push through all their reforms so that by the time the next election rolled around it was Bill Murphy who saw that Harvey's name was on the ballot and the earnest young men who voted Harvey into his second term. As well as his third. At the beginning of his fourth term Harvey died in his office, that is to say, on the boardwalk in front of the Post Office. Today, where once a wag put a hand-lettered sign, there is a memorial plaque for the only dog mayor known to human history.

One final note... The High Desert Freedom League, cornered in Desert Springs by the Arizona Highway Patrol and the Piscante County Sheriff's Department, turned out to be composed of undercover agents of the FBI, ATF, IRS, Treasury Department, Postal Service, and one member of Armed And Dangerous, the militia watchdog organization. This group of men and women, charged with the responsibility of investigating the threat of militias, had unknowingly banded together thinking the others were the genuine article. The mayhem that resulted was due to their attempts to prove to one another their loyalty to the cause.

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